As the Devils season draws to a close, management has switched gears from, ‘let’s try to end the year on a good note’, to ‘let’s see what the prospects have to offer’. Since the Devils front office is looking ahead to next season, I thought I could do the same. I really don’t have anything more to add to the discussion about this year’s team anyway; and truth be told, the story of the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils ended a while ago and the obituaries have already been written. With that in mind, today I’m going to take an early stab at what the 2022-23 Devils line-up might look like.
The fun thing about doing this now is that the possibilities are endless. I know I’m going to be wrong, the only question is how wrong. Since this season has left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth, I decided to make this more about what I want to happen than what’s necessarily most realistic. Unlike Fitzgerald, I don’t have to deal with annoying things like other GMs not being willing to trade franchise players and free agents not wanting to play for a team that has 1 playoff win in the last decade.
I’ll start by breaking down what I see as the team’s needs by position to identify where I feel they should be looking to upgrade. All info in this section is via Capfriendly unless otherwise stated.
The following forwards are under contract for the 2022-23 season and were regulars in the line-up this season:
- Jack Hughes, C - $8,000,000 AAV
- Nico Hischier, C - $7,250,000 AAV
- Tomas Tatar, W- $4,500,000 AAV
- Andreas Johnsson, W - $3,400,000 AAV
- Yegor Sharangovich, W - $2,000,000 AAV
- Janne Kuokkanen, W - $1,825,000 AAV
- Michael McLeod, C - $925,000 AAV
- Dawson Mercer, C/RW - $894,167 AAV
- Nathan Bastian, RW - $825,000 AAV
Total cap hit: $29,669,167
There are also 4 RFAs of significance:
- Jesper Bratt, W
- Pavel Zacha, LW
- Miles Wood, LW
- Jesper Boqvist, C/W
Bratt’s next contract is the only I expect will earn a significant raise, for the purposes of today’s exercise, let’s say he ends up around, I don’t know... $6,200,000. I’m not really sure what to expect for Wood and Zacha. My goal right now isn’t to project their salaries though, so I will put them down for a combined total of $6,000,000 and say Boqvist gets about $1,000,000. That brings the total up to just under $42,000,000 for 13 forwards.
There are also a handful of prospects who will be competing for a spot come training camp.
- Alex Holtz, RW
- Fabian Zetterlund, RW
- Tyce Thompson, RW
- Nolan Foote, LW
Currently, if you put together a line-up based on everyone being healthy and signed (and not worried about waiver status) this is a rough idea of what I would expect:
Sharangovich - Hughes - Mercer
Zacha - Hischier - Bratt
Johnsson - Boqvist - Tatar
Wood - McLeod - Bastian
Shayna Goldman recently wrote an article for the Athletic ($) reviewing how the Devils line-up compares to the ‘cup checklist’ put together by Dom Luszczyszyn (also from the Athletic). The premise uses Dom’s GSVA model to rate players with certain thresholds having to be met for a player to be considered an elite, top-line, top-6 forward, etc. Up front the Devils actually fair pretty well, with the only thing missing being another top-line winger. I think this aligns well with the consensus among Devils fans, for whatever that’s worth. I would add to my own checklist: at least one, preferably two, defensively responsible forwards.
The LW position is the obvious position where the Devils can upgrade the middle-6. Neither Zacha nor Johnsson have really lived up to expectations and I would like to see one or both replaced next year. I also think the Devils should consider trying to upgrade, or at least bringing in some competition for the 4C position. McLeod was good on the pk this year with a value of 1.5 for xSHD [EvolvingHockey($)], but 5 on 5 he left a lot to be desired (-0.4 for even-strength defense) and at 24 what we see is probably what we’re going to get. He’s far from irreplaceable.
There are some other considerations up front based on the players in the organization. Do the Devils see Mercer as a center or a winger? Can Boqvist build off of his success from this season? And will any prospects show enough growth to make the Devils roster next season? I think we all probably have Holtz penciled in at the very least, but the other prospects I listed could push for roles as well. Depending on how close to competing Fitzgerald feels the organization is at and how secure he feels his job is, that could affect how aggressive he is in the offseason as he balances giving opportunities to players in the organization with immediate help from outside.
To recap, here is the line-up I have for the Devils, with Holtz included and the positions of potential upgrade left unfilled.
Sharangovich - Hughes - Holtz
???? - Hischier - Bratt
???? - Mercer/Boqvist - Tatar
Wood - ???? - Bastian
Kuokkanen - McLeod
Assuming growth from Mercer, I think this is reasonable. If Holtz is going to be in the line-up I want him in the best spot to succeed so that means a spot next to Hughes.
This won’t be a surprise to anyone whose read any of my blogs this year, but I have identified two forwards I think would be perfect fits to address the Devils’ areas of need. RFA Matthew Tkachuk is the big fish, and obviously the dream scenario and UFA Valeri Nichushkin, who is much more attainable, but also older and obviously not quite in the same ballpark. Both are very strong two-way forwards who would also add some size to the top-6. Adding either one of them to the line-up and preferably both, would be a huge boost to this group. Along with this, someone like Viktor Rask could add some depth and challenge McLeod for the 4C spot. That leaves my final, best-case-scenario line-up looking something like this:
Sharangovich - Hughes - Holtz
Tkachuk - Hischier - Bratt
Boqvist - Mercer - Tatar
Wood - Rask - Bastian
Kuokkanen - McLeod
Pavel Zacha went in the Tkachuk deal along with the Devils first rounder, the rights to Arseni Gritsyuk, and another pick. Is it a fair deal? I don’t know, that could depend on where the Devils 1st ends up. Shane Wright is probably enough to make that deal work. The 7th overall pick doesn’t sound quite as sexy though. So balance it out and say it’s the 4th overall pick and hope the Flames scouting staff has been paying attention to what Gritsyuk has been doing in the KHL. Oh, and the Devils sign TKachuk to a $9 million dollar extension in this scenario and Rask for $2 million. Arizona also threw us a 2023 4th for Andreas Johnsson so they could reach the cap floor. What I like about this line-up is that it does a good job upgrading the roster while allowing some room for player growth. I considered adding another forward to upgrade the 3rd line, but this allows Mercer and Boqvist to get some ice-time and also leaves the door open for another forward to crack the line-up if they do well enough in camp. The only weakness is it relies on Holtz being ready for the big leagues, but his performance in Utica this season along with projecting some offseason growth gives me some hope that he’ll deliver. It’s a calculated risk.
Total cap hit from forwards: ~43 million
On defense, the Devils have only one regular line-up player not signed from this year’s group, PK Subban. That leaves 5 NHL regulars from this year.
- Dougie Hamilton, RD - $9,000,000 AAV
- Damon Severson, RD - $4,166,666 AAV
- Ryan Graves, LD - $3,166,667 AAV
- Jonas Siegenthaler, LD - $1,125,000 AAV
- Ty Smith, LD - $863,333 AAV
If everyone’s healthy, the top-4 names on the list will likely make up the Devils top 4 next season. I think it’s clear Ty Smith is going to have to earn his spot in the line-up, with some prospects, particularly Bahl, giving him some competition. The Devils seem pretty invested in Bahl, whether or not it’s for the right reasons, I’m not sure, but I think he spends a good chunk of time in New Jersey next season. He’s been fine, so I’m ok with that. The 3rd spot on the right side does need to be addressed however. There’s really not much out there in free agency to address this, although I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for. Anyone in the budget is coming with major flaws. Since I’m running the team for this exercise, Subban is coming back for $2,000,000. It’s him or Justin Braun and Subban is the younger of the two. That leaves me with the same defense as last year, albeit, $7 million cheaper. I’m not thrilled about it, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world either.
Graves - Hamilton
Siegenthaler - Severson
Smith - Subban
Total cap hit from defensemen: $21,116,666
The biggest need for the Devils is going to be the hardest to address with any certainty. The Devils really need a long-term solution in net and I don’t think they can come back with the same tandem as last season. The current depth chart looks like this:
- Jonathan Bernier, LTIR - $4,125,000
- MacKenzie Blackwood - $2,800,000
The health of both players is a big question mark, and even if Blackwood is healthy it’s a big question whether he’s an NHL starter. On the other hand, both players are under contract for another year and coming back, so unless Bernier is not going to be ready for the season next year, you probably are either buying someone out or trading them. I actually think Blackwood could have some value around the league given he was discussed as a potential option for team Canada before the NHL pulled out of the olympics. As far as internal options, both Nico Daws and Akira Schmid have played well in Utica, but neither have carried that success over to New Jersey. I think both are solid prospects, but neither are projected to be more than an NHL backup at best. One or both could end up beating that projection and becoming an NHL starter someday, but I’m not betting the Devils season on it happening next year.
That leaves external options. There’s no real attractive long-term options out there that aren’t also big question marks. In free agency, there are two names that stand out. The first is Ville Husso. Husso has platooned with Jordan Binnington for the Blues this season, and has taken over the starting job. On the other hand, Husso only has played 56 games in his career, and he wasn’t all that good last year. That said, he has been one of the better goalies in the league this season. MoneyPuck has him as saving 15 goals above expected in 39 games. His lack of NHL experience means he’ll likely be more affordable and his age makes him less of a risk from an injury standpoint. It’s a big risk, but there aren’t any safe options out there. The second name is Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper, like Husso, has been one of the better goalies in the NHL this season, saving 20.9 goals above average according to MoneyPuck. On one other hand, he has a longer track record than Husso on the other hand, he’s 32, making him a greater risk for injuries and will cost a lot more. I don’t see him as a safer bet performance-wise either given he’s at the age where some players just fall off of a cliff. Ultimately, I think it’s a coin toss for me. I decided to go with Husso because I think he’s more attainable and the last couple times the Devils went with an over 30 goalie to provide them with insurance it hasn’t quite worked out for them. I’m trading Blackwood to St. Louis in return for Husso’s rights and a draft pick. Dom Luszcyzyszyn projects Husso to make $4.2 million on the market this year. I don’t think he’ll get that with his track record, so I’m signing Husso to a 2 year deal with an AAV of $3 million.
That leaves the options as:
- Ville Husso, $3,000,000
- Jonathan Bernier, $4,125,000
Total goalie cap hit: $7,125,000
The final roster comes in around $72 million, well below the cap. I think it is a much stronger roster than this years version, although one that still relies a lot on growth from younger players. So what do you think? Do you think the Devils could pull off a Matthew Tkachuk trade? Do you have any alternatives you would like to see? How do you feel about Ville Husso? Did I miss any goaltending options? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading.